Where do we read? And how do those places affect our reading? Reading a newspaper by the fireplace is quite a different experience from reading it on a noisy street corner or in the social setting of a coffeehouse. Considering the physical surroundings in which readers encounter books, manuscripts, and other forms of printing and writing, this exhibition turns background into foreground. Twelve scenes suggest how such physical settings might shape the experiences of readers past and present.
Connections between texts and places tell us something about how and why texts were read in the first place. Each space recreated here brings together certain kinds of reading materials and also defines an audience or audiences. Each space, that is, produces a different kind of reading. Texts may fall into realms of public or private life; may be performed aloud or read silently; may constrain their readers or liberate them. Because the act of reading is largely intangible, these texts and the spaces they conjure up also provide some evidence to help us understand what it meant and what it means to read a book. Deciding which spaces to include, one that suggested itself again and again was the bathroom. The bathroom is arguably a reader's utopia—a space that is "no place," places no constraints on readers and makes no demands of them. It is a place where everything and anything can be—and most likely has been—read if you are so inclined. As a utopia, it is an escape from the world, not a space in which one permanently dwells. As an ideal, it informs our sense of possibility, of reading outside of time and space. As a reality, however, it proved beyond (or beneath) the illustrative scope of this exhibition.
This exhibition is intended to be exploratory—and fun. If successful, it should raise questions rather than provide definitive answers. The spaces you see here are representative. No attempt has been made to be comprehensive, a truly impossible feat. Moreover, these spaces point to the contradictions inherent in specifying any textual space—think of the woman fervently reading her Harlequin romance at the kitchen table or the student at his desk eagerly reading the comic book hidden within his textbook—ambiguities and inconsistencies that need to be acknowledged rather than censored. By recognizing them, we become more aware of our own reading practices, and how varied and situated they are.
Brooke Palmieri, '09, Exhibition Curator
Lynne Farrington, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
John Pollack, Rare Book and Manuscript Library